Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

"Who built that?" Chance and history

By Claude Fischer

Obama in a factory

Recently, Mitt Romney took after President Obama’s slip, “You didn’t build that” to indict Obama for diss’ing entrepreneurs. (The president meant that successful business people did not build the infrastructures upon which their enterprises depend.) The deeper question beyond the political “gotcha” was how much of the credit for individuals’ success should go to their own skills and efforts versus how much should go to the community and government.

Obama in a factory

Americans typically give a lot more credit for a person’s success to the individual than do people in other cultures (see, for example this earlier post). In a recent column David Brooks observed the paradox that, in order for us to act forcefully, we need to believe that we control our fates, even if upon sober reflection we must acknowledge how much we depend on others for our success.

Here I want to add another element to the discussion, to think about how much of individuals’ success (or failure) is due to chance and history. Recent research suggests that random events early in a career can make a big difference, because advantage builds upon advantage.


The great 20th-century sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the “Matthew Effect” after the passage, “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29). Formulated from his studies of scientists, Merton’s notion was that opportunities arise for people who have early successes; they get additional attention, additional contacts, additional resources. The opportunities that “shall be given” generate yet more success, allowing the anointed to pull ahead of others. Conversely, missing that early chance can put scientists in a permanent rut among the “hath not.”

One implication of the Matthew Effect is that if you experience a fortunate accident early on – say, your college roommate invents some cool new software and asks you to help market it – you can multiply that advantage over time. Or, if you have a random stroke of bad luck early on – say, your college roommate goes berserk, you can’t get your work done, and you flunk a couple of critical classes – getting out of the ditch is extra hard. Not impossible, but harder.


One study that shows experimentally how early fortune changes the course of events was conducted by Matt Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts (here; and summarized in Watts’s recent book here). They set up several separate online “music worlds” in which teens were invited to download songs from unknown bands and rate them. The experimenters listed the songs and how often those songs had already been downloaded on each web site – except that in each separate “music world” save one they randomly assigned a starting number of downloads to the songs.

The researchers found that how supposedly popular the songs were to start with, a popularity they had randomly manipulated, heavily shaped the songs’ final successes. The qualities of the songs (as measured in the condition without a manipulated starting number of downloads) also affected their success, but the arbitrariness of the starting point was critical. Raters chose and liked songs better if  they already appeared to be popular. (This is something the “payola” operators knew well. On payola, see here.)

The implication is that whether a band succeeds or not depends in part on its talent, in part on fans’ tastes (which we can think of as the musical culture of the era), and in part on the accident of getting noticed early on or not. We like to think that, say, Bob Dylan and the Beatles were so great that their brilliance would have made them successes irrespective of circumstances. But maybe not; that may be true just in our particular “musical world.” Dylan was precociously discovered by Times reviewer Robert Sheldon; the Beatles picked up their mop-top hair-dos by chance. Who knows? Maybe each success was, as Dylan put it, “brought on by a simple twist of fate.”


A recent study by Alexander Petersen and his colleagues of the careers of 300 physicists found that Matthew Effects and randomness mattered there, too. Modern physics, in particular, requires a lot of collaboration. (Publications sometimes have hundreds of co-authors.) A physicist’s early success depends in great measure on linking up with productive teachers and colleagues. That early success then permits him or her to win large grants, find yet more productive collaborators, and be off to the (Nobel Prize) races. An early setback – say, the death of a supervisor, or a technical glitch in an experiment – leads them to fall behind.

atom smashers in control room

We often look at the careers of great scientists and think that they were destined to change the world. Perhaps some  were. But often success was the result of talent plus being in the right place at the right time for the right fortune to strike.


A broader case of chance and history is right before us: the Great Recession. Being born around 1983 rather than around 1988 obviously cannot be credited to the babies. But that accident of fate mattered 18 to 22 years later when most of those newborns eventually graduated high school and college. The 1983 cohort entered a good job market; the 1988 cohort found a dismal job market. More of the first than of the second could start their careers with decent jobs. And we know that lifetime earnings depend a lot on where people start; it is hard to catch up from a lousy first job. (See this earlier post. In my own case, I was lucky to hit the academic job market as it was just about peaking.)

So, “Who built that?”  The entrepreneur did. But he or she did it with the help, at minimum, of customers, workers, infrastructure builders (where, for example, would all those web businesses be without the government project that developed the Internet?), and the systems of law and order all businesses depend on. Oh, and the entrepreneur may well have had a good measure of early, Matthew Effect luck, too. As to those who failed, a little honesty and humility should lead us to say, “There but for the grace….”

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.